Little boy and girl talking through tin cans and string.

Can Adults Learn Languages As Quickly As Children?

There is a myth around that children learn languages more quickly and easily than adults. “A myth?” you ask. Yes. A myth.

There is a whole lot of research that shows it, but let’s just think logically.

The average, hearing child begins to be exposed to language the moment the ears are formed in the womb – by around 6 months gestation. It has been shown that this prenatal language exposure is significant in the acquisition of the child’s first language (and obviously has ramifications for children with hearing losses – but that is a different post).

After birth, the average child begins to recognise their own language at about 6 months of age. This is evidenced by the signing children of Deaf adults who begin to use signs to communicate about this age. By the age of 1 year they can understand simple sentences and have often one or two words in their repertoire.

Let’s stop there: at this stage, the child has had, let’s say, 365 days of passive exposure to language… if they are only awake for 5 hours a day (which is well understated), that is about 1800 hours exposure. And one would hope, at least an hour per day of active interaction from others – 365 hours. And for that, they have maybe 5 words to show for it.

By two years they are putting two words together. By three years they have a word for nearly everything and are using two or three word phrases. So now we are talking about maybe 2000-3000 hours active interaction, and probably 10,000-15,000 hours of passive exposure.

Well, I have probably spent about 180 hours so far on my French over the last 6 months, and today in my (only) third conversation session, I was able to put together sentences of 5 – 10 words, discussing the early Twentieth Century, and in that same session learn about 5 – 10 new words and phrases. I have a tested vocabulary of around 2300 words. Obviously, that is a lot faster than a child.

So where does the idea come from? Well, I suspect it has to do with the fact that children don’t seem to mind making mistakes with language (how often do we hear a mother correct her child’s choice of words or structure), with the fact that children interact A LOT with playmates as they get older, and quite simply, don’t mind doing the work of learning!

Now, that children who don’t learn language in the first seven years of life often don’t become fluent in any language is well established. However, again, I think a lot of that is a growing concern with not making mistakes, and not enjoying the process of learning as much as younger children.

I also suspect it is further legitimised by the so called “language learning window” that gets bandied around by child development experts – paediatricians, speech pathologists, teachers, as well as the now defunct idea that when we are young our brains are plastic and growing, but that the growth slows as we age, and that everything is ‘hard-wired’ by the age of 7 years (or 10, or 12, or 15, or…. depending on the specialist). However, this concept has been disproven. The truth is, our brains remain plastic our whole lives, and are able to rewire in incredible ways given the right stimulation.

In fact, research has now shown that, regardless of when a person learns a second (or third, or..) language, the learning of that language causes the brain to physically grow in ways that it doesn’t grow learning other skills. It also delays the onset of Alzheimer’s by an average of 4.4 years, and increases IQ.

So the next time you hear someone use the excuse of “I’m too old” … or worse, “YOU’RE too old” … simply smile at their ignorance, and get on with the job of growing your brain!

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